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The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Tim Tsouliadis

Posted By Julia Braun Kessler On July 23, 2008 @ 12:04 pm In History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Russia | 2 Comments

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia
by Tim Tsouliadis
Penguin, 448 pp.
CLR Rating:

ON HORROR’S HEAD HORRORS ACCUMULATE

Show us not the aim without the way. For ends and means on earth are so entangled, that changing one, you change the other too; each different path brings other ends in view.Ferdinand Lassalle, Franz von Sickingen
(as quoted from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon)

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Time was, and not so long ago, when peoples all over the world anticipated great results from the Russian Revolution of 1917. The overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a new nation, first of devout Marxist and then Leninist thinkers, was thought to promise a coming salvation. Those revolutionaries were deemed creators of a new world, and not only for Russia.

America too saw devoted admirers for that Utopian experiment. Communist or Marxist theorists, led many more enthusiasts, including innocent idealists who dreamed of a better world through socialism. Back then, they were dubbed “fellow travelers.”

Tim Tsouliadis’ The Forsaken is a history of those thousands of Americans who acted upon their notions to leave the United States during the Thirties, go to the Soviet Union, and assist in making that dream succeed. Yet today, when that massive Soviet structure is collapsed and lies in ruins almost forgotten, their miserable fate is little known. More extraordinarily, the scope of the purges into which they were swept up remains not entirely known to too many. Among them are believers who continue to complain of American “Red baiting” through those decades (see Tim Weiner’s Remembering Brianwashing [1]).

As shocking in that sad saga was the role of the United States State Department itself: year after year, the attitude of many of our own officials remained aloof, ever-blinded by an indifferent idealism, refusing to see what was transpiring before their very eyes in the Soviet Union. Midnight arrests, disappearances and the mass, senseless slaughter — all in the name of the Cause! Such prominent figures as Joseph E. Davies, Harry Hopkins, Owen Lattimore, not to mention uncounted others figured large in that wholesale injustice.

Their attitude, their sheer disinterest, their neglect, and, above all, their unwillingness to listen and help their fellow countrymen who left their native land to expose themselves to the dangerous Soviet experiment was clear. The view of our government remained consistent: They had made their bed, only to sleep in it.

In contrast, Tsouliadis’ descriptions of the courtship of our government of the Soviet leadership, the respect and astonishing attention awarded to Joseph Stalin, was notable. Upon his arrival in Moscow, United States Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, for example, briefed the American media with his observations:

A wonderful and stimulating experiment is taking place in the Soviet Union. It is an enormous laboratory in which one of the greatest experiments in the realm of state administration is being accomplished. The Soviet Union is doing wonderful things. The leaders of the Government are an extremely capable, serious hardworking and powerful group of men and women.

And that was but minor misinformation, for Davies saw fit, upon his arrival in Moscow, to attend Stalin’s “show trials” just underway at that time. His presence in the courtroom lent these trials legitimacy. His statement soon followed: “The best seem to believe that in all probability there was a definite conspiracy in the making looking to a coup d’etat by the army.” And the Ambassador then went on a month later, to write to the Secretary of State,

It is scarcely credible that their brother officers … should have acquiesced in their execution unless they were convinced that these men had been guilty.

Such faithful confidence in the regime and steady support for it came as a lubricant to murder for Stalin’s machine. And as a consequence, Davies was presented with celebrations, gala banquets, pomp and parades, all laid on for his entourage of devoted believers. Stalin, that arch conspirator, knew his tactics, and lost no time in making good use of our influential Ambassador. He knew that via Davies, he had the ear of President Roosevelt. The American Ambassador was a perfect vehicle for presenting himself to the world as its latest savior and genius.

Tsouliadis’ story commences with the arrival of the Americans in the Soviet Union, describing their enthusiastic welcome, the excitement of the Russians at the willingness of these people to join with and contribute their varied skills to Soviet society. Those Americans (with their families), came from every part of our nation — Midwest, South, West and Northeast — as well as from every walk of life. Among them were engineers and skilled factory workers from every industry, together with professionals: doctors, nurses, architects and more. They’d ventured into a new world to help build it with their know-how. Included among them were some who had no political biases, but were simply escapees from the Depression plaguing our nation (during those years some 25 percent were unemployed).

Nor can one ignore the many journalists whose enthusiasm and naiveté blinded them to the events unfolding around them. Among them was Walter Duranty of the The New York Times, who lavished praise on Stalin. He even dismissed the devastating Ukrainian famine that resulted in the death from starvation of up to 10 million Soviet souls. He reported it as follows:

The use of the word ‘famine’ in connection with the North Caucasus is sheer absurdity. There, a bumper crop is being harvested as fast as tractors, horses, oxen, men, women and children can work. There are plump babies in the nurseries or gardens of the collectives…Village markets are flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter at prices lower than in Moscow.

So Duranty too was feted and saluted by the Soviet hierarchy and lived a “life of unrivaled comfort in Moscow”. He was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his outstanding reporting from the U.S.S.R.

Tsouliadis presents us with a portrait of some of these thousands of emigrants who promptly upon arrival formed a baseball team to show off our national pastime to the young Socialists. We view them as they appeared then in the 30s, with their determined, shining, young faces. Yet, immediately relieved of their American passports, with assurances they would soon be returned along with joint citizenship in this new land, their documents were never to be seen again. And by the end of Tsoulidaris’ account no more than two of these survived the carnage. The terror that these Americans were engulfed by through the long Stalin era is made vivid.

Tsouliadis has done remarkable research in the Russian archives. He has traveled the vast extent of the Gulag, gone as far as Kolyma and Magadan, and scrutinized formerly unavailable documents to bring us the distressing account of those decades of murderousness. Readers of faint heart beware when embarking upon this superb work of history. So many stories of suffering are here collected, so utterly specific in their brutal details, a strong stomach will be required. Yet, it is worth the pain since one cannot emerge doubting: the epoch is surely one of history’s most vicious; and its revelation of the Twentieth Century’s brutality is dumbfounding. Nor could those paltry few who survived speak out. They had good reason. Case after case is recorded of their execution. Escapees were sought out wherever they hid in the world. Mostly this was never heard by the general public; except for the KGB’s tracking, hounding and finally efforts of the Soviet Union to murder Leon Trotsky, who had left the country for exile in hiding in Mexico.

As the writer sums it up, those few who lived to tell their bloody tale survived not because of bodily strength or canny actions or skills, but because of extraordinary good luck. That, and nothing more.

Not only did this horror exist unchecked for over 50 years, it went grinding forward after World War II and into the 50’s during the Korean War, when American fliers shot down over the Soviet Union went untraceable by relatives and friends (even if they survived). They too were marched into the Gulag as spies, never to be seen again. Families seeking information of their lost ones were not enlightened as to where and when, let alone how their loved ones were killed.

Yet those relatives who persisted in their search by advertisement in Soviet newspapers in hopes of finding any who knew the fates of their relatives only learned of their terrible end many years later. Well after the Soviet tyranny was gone, some few at least were given closure.

One devastating story: The Collins family learned through a man named Yuri Khorshunov, who wrote a letter from Nizhneudinsk in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, addressed to the American Embassy ten years after the incident had occurred in 1958. He said he felt compelled to do so since he was “fulfilling the will of my late mother.” He explained his mother had worked as a conductor on the trains delivering prisoners to the camps of Far East Russia. He said:

Eight prisoners had died on that particular section of the journey and their bodies were unloaded from the prison train and placed on a sledge for burial. As Mrs. Khorshunov was returning home the driver of the burial sledge stopped to ask her ‘what he was supposed to do since one of the dead prisoners seemed to breathe, and putting a live person into a grave did not correspond to Christian traditions’. Faced with a choice, Mrs. Khorshunov elected to bring the prisoner back home with her.

As a result, the Khorshunovs tended him until he revived briefly and he spoke out to them in a foreign tongue. All the while, he pointed to himself and said “American.” Later he added to this by drawing pictures to show his plight, his fallen plane, the poles and barbed wire that surrounded him thereafter. His name, he said, was Fred Collins. Collins died the next week, but news of him awaited “glasnost” before it came to be sent.

Another sad tale tells of a Russian witness who came forward with evidence forty-four years after his own discovery of incarcerated Americans, flyers from America—San Francisco, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago. Victor Trotsenko saw an advertisement in a Kabarovsk city newspaper and he thought it time to remember and report.

Having broken a leg in a small town near Vladivostok, he was recovering in hospital when he encountered a guard in a remote corridor who asked him to watch the prisoners in that section while he went off on his break. Trotsenko understood no English, but managed to comprehend the primitive signs and communications coming from within the imprisoned area. One soldier in his recollection “would make cradling motions with his arms, indicating that he had left two small children back home.” The American had blue eyes and light-colored hair, was around six feet tall and was from Cleveland. Even when that intelligence was provided forty-four years later, it was greeted with skepticism. A Russian colonel, one Vinogradov. said, “There are many inventive people in Russia who conjure up good fairy tales.”

So it has remained over the generations for that murky period of horror in history. Says Tsoulidaris, it’s time to tell it all—just as it happened. He does so brilliantly in this engrossing and comprehensive work of history.


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[1] Remembering Brianwashing: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/weekinreview/06weiner.html?scp=1&sq=remembering%20brainwashing&st=cse